The testing-and-accountability movement can be proud of its accomplishments under No Child Left Behind, but the strategy has run out of steam. What we need now are breakthrough ideas on holding schools accountable—approaches that will encourage instructional excellence instead of curricular narrowing, cheating, and gaming.
The Obama administration’s waivers to NCLB have freed schools from the infamous “Adequate Yearly Progress” metric that unfairly labeled too many as “failing.” But the waivers don’t go nearly far enough. They preclude much state innovation in measuring student achievement.
States may not, for example, use a race-neutral approach to identifying schools that are leaving disadvantaged students behind, as Florida would have liked. (In the Sunshine State’s own system, schools are docked if their lowest-performing students—whatever their race—don’t make significant gains in the course of the school year.) They can’t evaluate high schools by outcomes—like how many students go on to graduate from college—instead of by test scores. They can’t even use computer-adaptive tests, like those uses for graduate school admissions, because low-performing students would get assessed on content that is “below grade level.” (Of course, that’s the point of computer-adaptive technology—it can pinpoint exactly where students are, even if they are far ahead or behind most children their age.)
Some innovations will be better than others, but nobody has this figured out yet. That’s an argument for humility in Washington, and innovation in the states. Presidential candidates: Is anybody listening?